In the fairly lonely farm country that surrounds Lamborghini headquarters in Sant'Agata Bolognese, it can be a challenge on some hot summer days to invent the drama and beauty of Italy. Then again, hand us a 542-horsepower rear-wheel-drive Gallardo painted in 1970s-style smackdown Ithaca Green with a big white-and-gold stripe down the middle, and we could make beauty and drama happen in a damned landfill.
You're burning your retinas on the 2010 Lamborghini Gallardo LP550-2 Valentino Balboni and, trust us, you cannot wait to drive it someday. Not a Lambo test goes by without our trying desperately to force some hot oversteer out of the usual all-wheel-drive Gallardo or Murcièlago chassis. Until today, the best we could hope for was a long lateral push over a massive slab of real estate. Now we have it all.
The last Lamborghini for the street with rear-wheel drive was the Diablo GT in 1999, which came with a 567-hp 5,992cc V12 created for GT2 racing. Since then, only some track versions have come with 2WD, such as the Murcièlago R-GT in 2003 developed with Reiter Engineering and Audi Sport.
So, it's been awhile. Not that the standard Gallardo with all wheels tugging is a pushover, but it isn't much of an intriguing driver's challenge in that legendary stay-alert Italian way. So now this has all been resolved with the 2010 Lamborghini Gallardo LP550-2 Valentino Balboni.
All Hail Valentino!
Valentino Balboni is the most faithful and hard-working company test-driver Lamborghini will ever have in its history. He started back in April 1968 when he was 19 years old and continued until Italian government regulations forced him to retire as of October 2008. This is a Lamborghini lifer if ever there was one, and the man has witnessed it all.
On apprenticing with the legendary Bob Wallace, Lamborghini's first test-driver, Balboni recalls, "If you were in with Bob, you were fine. If you never managed to get in his good graces, then you were shut out. I remember doing one of our usual 1,000-km endurance runs from Bologna to Bari and back in a Countach and he didn't say but five words to me the whole way, and four of those were critiques of my driving."
On Ferruccio Lamborghini: "He hired me personally. He was really a good guy and he embodied that spirit of the independent benevolent company boss that still existed before the labor movement here in 1968. That was the dawn of the Miura and the final chapter of the original company. By then, Ferruccio had established a sense of mission and passion. We were all so young then and he was like a second papà."
Regarding the 2010 Lamborghini Gallardo LP550-2, Balboni tells us, "Starting in the fall of 2008, I began getting phone calls from the technicians and they would ask me one question here and another there — what would I prefer in my ideal Lamborghini? After a while of this, I put it all together and went to ask them what they were doing calling me like this. Then around the time of my official retirement at 60, they came to me and told me what was up."
Balboni's Wish List
At the very least, anyone smart who has done a satisfying and crucial job for one company for 40 years knows what they like. "The most important ingredient for me," Balboni recounts, "was of course that the car be rear-wheel drive if at all possible. I learned all of my testing techniques driving some of the most exciting rear-wheel-drive sports cars, and I need that feel at the wheel and in the chassis if the car is to bear my name." (How many living guys can say this?)
Then Balboni requested that the standard shifter be a six-speed manual, even though he knows the vast majority of 2010 Lamborghini Gallardo LP550-2 buyers will choose the optional e-gear automated manual with column-mounted shift paddles as on our test car. Be a man! Shift it yourself! In this special case, we would stick with the manual, too, frankly.
He then naturally got into the suspension requests and there was the tire conversation, plus the inevitable (for a marketing and image maven like Lamborghini) paint and leather and wheel choices. There was also the chat about how to raise the threshold on stability-control intervention. It's also interesting that Balboni prefers to keep the ceramic brake discs as an option. It's a choice we understand as regards traditional pedal feel, but we do like our ceramics on such heady beasts as this.
Aesthetically speaking, the heritage-full Miura touches are plain to see on the outer paint mit stripes and inner leather echoing the stripes theme in Polar White leather. The 5.2-liter direct-injected V10 engine is naked under polycarbonate glass so you can contemplate its 542 hp at 8,000 rpm and 398 pound-feet of torque at 6,500 rpm.
Full Speed Ahead
We were so jazzed about finally sitting inside a modern rear-wheel-drive Lambo that it was hard to suppress the teenage squealing.
First off, though the output of the Balboni car's V10 is down 10 hp on the standard model in an effort to make it a little more tractable for better car control, the curb weight plummets 265 pounds to a nimble 3,042 pounds. By the math we learned at school, this means each horse of the AWD Gallardo pulls 6 pounds, while each nag of the LP550-2 pulls just 5.6 pounds.
In the absence of extra traction from the front axle chipping in, the RWD Balboni's acceleration to 100 km/h (62 mph) is estimated to be just two-tenths of a second arrears of the 4WD chassis, or 3.9 seconds. The Balboni's top speed is also 199 mph versus the LP560-4's 202 mph. It's all bloody fast, really, so no criticism coming from us. These little differences add a small amount of safety, too, if you really want to analyze it.
The Squiggly Bits
But the secret weapon is in that feel from the steering wheel, plus the work in chassis dynamics that Balboni contributed during the first half of 2009. "We also had an entire day flogging the final tester car around the Nürburgring," he says to us. "It was crucial to really perfect that already improved sense of turn-in at all the curves." And we can attest that wheel feel and turn-in and a more natural sense of weight shift are all there to be enjoyed. With stability control fully disengaged and the transmission and throttle set to Corsa (it was, after all, a hot, bone-dry day over empty roads), we went to work like never before in a Gallardo.
Springs and dampers have been given firmer rates (though still short of the stiff-legged Ferrari 430 Scuderia), and the front antiroll bar is notably stiffer for quicker steering response. While the front tires are standard Gallardo kit — Pirelli P Zero 235/35ZR19 91Y — the rear tires change to a harder-compound version of the standard 295/30ZR19 100Y for better wrangling of all that bull power being directed to the rear wheels. The rears also get a tread pattern created specifically for this car.
If the stability control is left engaged, and with everything else in Corsa, it only activates once you hammer the brakes, so we felt free to play even in this setup. There's always the limited-slip differential at work as well, optimized at 45 percent engagement for this car. Unsprung weight at the corners is lessened nicely by using the 19-inch Scorpius forged-aluminum wheels first unveiled with the Gallardo Superleggera in 2007.
It is howling good fun, guys. We have envisioned this more natural Gallardo every time the LP560-4 came up short in hot, dynamically challenging sections of road or track. With rear-wheel drive, the Gallardo is so liberating and yet demanding, and thus perfect. As we said before, all we would change would be to swap the e-gear automated tranny for a manual gearbox and exchange the good feel of the steel brake rotors for the power and fade resistance of the optional ceramics.
Clever Little Launch of a Huger Plan
In a touch of whimsy, the VW/Audi/Lamborghini powers that be have launched this 2010 Gallardo LP550-2 Valentino Balboni — or, better yet, this chassis — very discreetly. Despite the fact that a chorus of aficionados has been screaming for this sort of car since the late 1990s, Lamborghini is deliberately containing its glee.
Make no mistake about it, though, this is simply the first usage of a corporate rear-wheel-drive supercar chassis, and we're going to see a lot more of it in coming years. Both the Gallardo and Murcièlago — just for starters — are destined to get specific rear-wheel-drive models in addition to the current all-wheel-drive versions, and not in just Valentino Balboni-style limited editions.
Shipments of the LP550-2 Valentino Balboni — from the limited run of 250 units — start arriving in the U.S. by late October after the Europeans get theirs in mid-September. Pricing starts at $219,800, or 11 percent over the LP560-4.
A still spry Valentino Balboni has a current two-year contract with Lamborghini as a consultant through 2010, renewable ad infinitum. Hallelujah.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.